Before the election campaign of 2014, Jawaharlal Nehru was in danger of being forgotten by ordinary Indians. Even the Congress was not using his photo in the elections as often as they were using images of Mohandas Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. India’s first prime minister had been relegated to a few academic corridors. But thanks to the Bharatiya Janata Party, Nehru has been resurrected in his full blood. From Narendra Modi’s attacks on him during the 2014 campaign to invoking him as a justification for revoking Kashmir’s special status, the BJP has demonstrated an obsession with Nehru.
This is all for the better.
Even people like me who were anti-Nehru were prompted to read the books of the first prime minister with ardent curiosity because of the fact that every BJP member who had not read him or about him was attacking him fervently. It seems clear that if Nehru was still alive, he would have been jailed for being an “urban naxal”.
From reading Nehru, it’s clear that these attacks would have left him unfazed. Nehru loved criticism. If there was no one be around to criticise him, he wrote essays against himself. This is not a characteristic of a politician but that of a thinker. A politician loves choirs of praising acolytes around him. A thinker or writer loves critiques.
The hornets nest
When Nehru was about seven, his father beat him badly for stealing a pen from his table. But Nehru had the intellectual ability to understand his father’s gesture. “I do not remember bearing any ill will toward my father because of this punishment,” he wrote. He would doubtless have attempted comprehend the BJP’s attacks on him.
His humanity was so enormous that when he was in jail, Nehru even made friends with the animals there. He wrote about this at some length. “For over a year after that I lived in that cell surrounded by these wasps and hornets; they never attacked me and we respected each other,” he noted. There were also three or four snakes his cell, but like the insects, these didn’t bother him. “News of them got out and there were headlines in the press,” he wrote. “As a matter of fact I welcomed the diversion.”
It was in this jail that he discovered a creature called udumu in Telugu, which I have eaten in my childhood. It looked like something between a lizard and a crocodile. Nehru did some research on it and after reading FW Champion’s The Jungle in Sunlight and the Shadow realised that it was a scaly mammal called a pangolin .
In jail, Nehru was surprised that the British officers gave him even German illustrated magazines to read, despite their country being at war with Germany. Prisoners today are starved of books to read and paper on which to write, almost in an attempt to kill them of boredom.
If Nehru had died in jail, India would no doubt have found another prime minister – perhaps Vallabhbhai Patel. But the world would have lacked Nehru’s three great books: Glimpses of World History, An Autobiography and The Discovery of India. A ruler can be replaced by another ruler but a thinker cannot be replaced.
Few first leaders of any nation have faced the attacks Nehru has borne after his death. George Washington has not been attacked. Lenin faced criticism after Gorbachev’s glasnost but not as vitriolically as Nehru. Mao was criticised by Deng Xiaoping but with dignity. Lenin and Mao’s mausoleums are still monuments of national pride.
One concerted line of attack on Nehru has been related to his handing of Kashmir in the early years of the republic. For contemporary India to understand his actions, it’s essential for us to attempt to recognise Nehru’s situation as a Kashmiri Pundit.
Nehru had Kashmiri roots and, as is clear from his name, was a Pandit. “We were Kashmiris,” he noted in An Autobiography (also known as Toward Freedom), written when he was in Dehradun jail in the early 1930s. “Over two hundred years ago, early in the eighteenth century our ancestors came down from the mountain valley to seek fame and fortune in the rich plains below.”
In Kashmir, they were Kauls. He writes that his ancestor Raj Kaul migrated to Delhi in 1716 but doesn’t tell us why the family chose to move. If they had not, the family’s prospects would have been quite different. Given Kashmir’s location, he would not have been a national leader. In Delhi, they acquired new family name. Since they lived near a nahar or canal, they became Nehrus.
Nehru wanted his ancestral land to be part of India. He was not heading a government of today’s strength or living in a world of global peace and stability. In the late 1940s, the world was full of people with hopes for nationhood and Kashmir was among them. It was not like Hyderabad state or Junagadh, within the broad geographical boundaries of India. Kashmir, though small, was a viable nation of its own. To ensure that it was included in India, Nehru agreed to give it a measure of autonomy through Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
Our younger intellectuals will assess the present Kashmir situation only in a few decades. But even if the BJP closes down all the social science departments in our universities, not only just in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the resurrected Nehru will come back onto our streets and into homes to talk to us, just as he did in Dehradun jail cell with insects, squirrels and snakes.
The Nehru I talked to in his books did not appear to be a man who was power hungry but a man who was knowledge hungry. That was the reason why he was reading not just books, but reading nature – trees, mountains, animals, birds, the people around and writing about them. Power-hungry men and women can never defeat knowledge-hungry men and women. Thanks to the BJP, Nehru is still with us now, not as a vote catcher but to give us knowledge.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is political theorist, social scientist and author.